Is 'Vocational' still a dirty word?
22nd June 2014
In her first two blogs on apprenticeships, Eleanor Bernardes, Associate at LKMco, explained what you need to know about apprenticeships and what you should consider when choosing one. In this new blog, she discusses today's perceptions about vocational paths.
My Grandfather was a head teacher of boarding schools for boys with challenging behaviour. When I asked my 90 year-old Gran about the education there, she exclaimed that the vocational education they provided was "simply wonderful for maladjusted children”. It was a lightning bolt moment. Several questions jumped at me. Despite the passage of time, do we still associate vocational education with struggling pupils? If so, how might we combat this prejudice?
Research has frequently highlighted the value of vocational education for both economic and pupil-focused reasons. In ‘Winning the Global Race’ the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) argued that vocational education and training have been neglected because of a belief that as the economy changes, people will need higher levels of general education. But the report highlights the future skills gaps that may result, and concludes that without action to address needs in all areas of our workforce including those requiring a more vocational type of training, “our economy will not be equipped to compete successfully on the global stage”. Further, Laura McInerney points to research by Bol and Van de Werfhorst which found that:
“[C]ountries that enabled young people to study for highly specific vocational qualifications while still at school typically had much lower rates of youth unemployment than countries whose students did solely academic subjects. Young people in these countries also spent less time looking for work when between jobs.”
Meanwhile, IPPR's ‘Vocational Education in English Schools’ report highlights research showing that vocational education increases school engagement and decreases the risk of pupils leaving the education system without qualifications - thus reducing the need for more expensive intervention further down the line.
The government has responded to research such as this on vocational education by pushing ahead with a new Technical Baccalaureate (a vocationally-focussed performance measure marking achievement by students aged 16-19 in 3 areas), whilst Labour's Shadow Education Secretary, Tristram Hunt, has promised that Labour would drive “a revolution in apprenticeships”. University Technical Colleges (or UTCs) and Studio Schools have also been introduced in an effort to provide high quality, specialised vocational education. Yet this policy has ended up highlighting some of the dis-joints between enthusiasm for the concept of vocational education and practice: by the end of 2013 it had become clear that UTCs were significantly undersubscribed at a potentially significant loss to the taxpayer.
For some, problems with UTCs place a question mark over the value of vocational education, but I would argue that the problem is actually one of the perception amongst the general public. As a teacher, whilst rolling out the International Baccalaureate Career Related Certificate (an education framework applying the education principles of the IB to career-related learning) I witnessed parents’ apparent bias against vocational programmes. It was very difficult to persuade parents that the programme was not simply being offered because their child was 'too thick' to do what the other kids were doing. Laura McInerney has highlighted this apparent snobbery on the part of parents adamant that their child should not choose a vocational course. Arguably, recent changes to curriculum and accountability like the introduction of the Ebacc have exacerbated this problem by pushing vocational education even further down the food chain.
So how might we combat these negative perceptions and elevate the status of vocational education? Firstly, there is a difference between vocational education and vocational qualifications. Many of the vocational qualifications that proliferated in recent years were low quality, and ‘equivalent’ only in theory. The government was therefore right cut out the ‘dead wood’ in the cull of qualifications that followed the 2011 Wolf Report. However, it is now time to replace these with a new approach to vocational education that is suitable for all pupils rather than just one particular type. The new DfE performance table measures for the TechBacc were introduced for courses beginning in September 2014 with the express aim of:
“Establishing a measure for excellence in technical provision [that] will end the perception that vocational education in the UK is a poor second to academic study. By recognising excellence, it will incentivise high-value provision and encourage the most able students to study demanding technical programmes.”
The TechBacc performance measure has three components:
- A ‘Tech level' qualification
- A level 3 maths qualification (such as A/AS level Mathematics, IB Maths (or Maths Studies) certificates, and other A/AS levels in Maths, quantitative methods, and use of mathematics)
- An extended project qualification.
This approach leans heavily on the IBCC’s model (which I mentioned above), which is also measured on three components: at least two IB diploma courses (A Level equivalents), an approved career-related (or vocational) course, and a core that includes Approaches to Learning, community and service, a reflective project and a language development course.
In my opinion, both the TechBacc and IBCC provide rigour and add accountability to the sector, and I would recommend that as schools review their curriculum offer, they seriously consider them. However, the challenge will be whether or not they can convince the general public (and by this I include parents, pupils and teachers) that high quality vocational education is a valuable pathway for all students, not just for 'maladjusted children'.
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You might also like:
Interview with Eugene: why I chose an apprenticeship
Choosing an apprenticeship: what should you consider?
What you need to know about apprenticeships in the UK
(c) Jaume Escofet, flickr
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